Friday, March 16, 2012

Thief (Michael Mann, 1981)

Early on in this gritty crime thriller, a character is amazed by the colour of the sky. And then, during a later scene, someone is impressed by the colour of a tree. Why did these two instances of nature appreciation stand out in my mind as I watched Thief for the first time the other night? Well, the desperate people who populate this ultra-sleek universe exist mainly within an artificial vacuum. A grey world where every square inch is seemingly covered with a thick layer of steel and concrete, the men and women who are forced to survive here on a daily basis are rarely given the opportunity to experience a realm that isn't filled with a coarse brand of granular sadness. Some will do just about anything to escape this dreary nightmare, and if that means penetrating the thick, metaphorical barriers that have set up to prevent them from attaining a better life, than so be it. In order to placate the drabness of this particular domain, the powers that be have decided to drape certain parts of it with neon signs. This addition of colour creates a weird dichotomy between the two disparate plains of chromatic existence. However, the veritable neon light show doesn't make you want to stay any longer in this place. If anything, it causes one to want to leave even more, as they do nothing but remind you of how beautiful the world can be. Bathed in darkness, yet filled with moments of profound resplendence, writer-director Michael Mann (Manhunter) pretty much reinvents film noir for the new wave era; think of it as a black and white gangster film from the 1940s, but with added flashes of colour.

The words "sleek" and "straightforward" can't be used enough to describe the overall temperament of this unsentimental slice of early '80s cool. And they can't be used enough to characterize Frank (James Caan), a career criminal whose specialty is breaking into safes.

Opening on the rain-soaked streets of Chicago, we meet Frank doing just that, setting up his industrial-strength drill to bust open a safe. You can tell almost immediately that Frank and his crew, Joseph (William LaValley), who is sitting in a car listening to a police radio in a nearby alleyway in order to keep tabs on the heat, and Barry (James Belushi), who is making sure the building's alarm system stays inoperative during the course of the break-in, are professionals by the way they disregard the frivolous contents of the safe (jewelry is merely tossed aside). No, what Frank's interested in is uncut diamonds. Yeah, that's right, he steals ice. Oh, sure, he'll take cash, but he mostly deals in ice.

If there were any doubts as to who was behind the camera during the safe-cracking sequence, those doubts pretty much melted away for good when we watch Frank, Barry and Joseph make their getaway, as it bares all the markings of what would soon be known as the Michael Mann aesthetic. The urban jungle at night as seen through Michael Mann's lens is an exhilarating spectacle. I mean, nary a word of dialogue has been spoken, yet you feel yourself getting sucked into this darkly beautiful landscape.

A used car salesmen by day, Frank runs into a bit of a snag regarding his cut for the score he just pulled. It would seem that the man carrying Frank's money, oh, let's just say, he met with an unfortunate accident. And, as you might expect, Frank is none too pleased by this turn of events, and decides to confront a low level mobster (Tom Signorelli) at his phony place of business. After setting up a meeting that will hopefully rectify his money situation (the loaded pistol he shoved in the mobster's face as they chatted convinced him that it was in his best interest to do so), Frank visits his ailing mentor (Willie Nelson) in prison. When the rendezvous does finally transpire, which, of course, is taking place under the cover of darkness (you don't do this kind of shit in the middle of the day), Frank is mildly annoyed when he discovers that the low level mobster has brought along a high level mobster named Leo (Robert Prosky) to their clandestine meet and greet.

A self-employed thief who doesn't like outside agitators messing with his scores, noodles with the idea of working of for Leo, who offers to back any his future criminal endeavours. What's the point of making all this money if he doesn't have anyone to share it with? And that's where a waitress named Jessie (Tuesday Weld) comes in.

In the film's most compelling scene in terms of acting and dialogue, Franks tells Jessie, who's reluctant to get romantically involved with another con (it's safe to say that she has a bit of a shady past), all about the time he spent at Joliet (eleven years to be exact) while at a coffee shop. This scene, which goes on for about ten minutes, does an excellent job of fleshing out the Frank character, while at same time giving James Caan the opportunity to a shine as an actor.

Accepting Leo's offer after he finds out that Jessie is in fact his "girl," Frank and his crew immediately go to work on their next score, which involves breaking into a massive safe located in a Los Angeles highrise. While Barry tries to figure out the particulars of the building's elaborate alarm system, Frank works on acquiring right tools for the job, and, of course, adopting a baby (he manages to do both, by the way, while wearing a grey leather jacket).

As Frank soon finds out, being associated with Leo has its pluses and minuses. On the upside, Frank's score is being properly financed, and, on top of that, Leo comes through for him in the baby department after his effort to adopt through legal channels hits a bit of a snag. On the downside, however, Frank's proximity to Leo has brought a lot of unwanted police attention (heat) on him (his house is bugged and he's constantly being followed).

Now, is Frank's attempt to go straight doomed to fail? Who's to say? What I will say is that his journey is definitely worth watching, no matter what the outcome.

If the scene in the coffee shop was the film's most compelling in terms of dialogue and acting, than the scene where Frank looses his tail, and begins to cut into the roof of the L.A. highrise is the most compelling in terms of mood and style. I don't know, the sight of James Caan cutting into a roof with a saw doesn't sound all that compelling to me. It's true, it doesn't. But I have yet to mention one key ingredient, and that is, Tangerine Dream, the German electronic group founded in the late 1960s. The synths! My god, man, the synths! I was in electro heaven during the early going of the so-called "burn job sequence." Is there anything cooler than the sound of Tangerine Dream pounding away on the soundtrack as James Caan and James Belushi tore into that roof? I can't think of anything, and my brain is literally a synaptic Rolodex of cinematic cool.

The film oozes a noirish flair from start to finish, yet James Belushi is in the cast. How is that possible, you ask? Well, when I first saw the comedic actor appear on-screen, I'll admit, I did cringe my pants a little. But then it dawned on me, James Caan would never hang out with someone who wasn't at least one quarter badass. And you know what? He was a bit of a badass. (Hello? He drives a white '77 Corvette.) In fact, his character was just as professional as Frank, and there's no-one more professional than him. So, I apologize to James Belushi for doubting his presence in this movie. Oh, and keep an eye out for William Petersen (To Live and Die and L.A.) as the bartender at one of those obnoxious Chicago-style blues clubs; don't get me wrong, I love the Chicago music scene, but only when it comes to Wax Trax! Records and House Music.

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  1. Excellent review...I too was quite enamoured by the rain soaked neon street life of Mann's remarkable debut. If you ever get around to reviewing THE KEEP, I'd be interested to read your thoughts on it. I've always felt that the cosmic electronica of Tangerine Dream was utilised most successfully in Mann's second film. But THIEF does have the irresistible 'Beach Theme' which is one of their best compositions.

  2. The Keep, eh? Let me see... Oh yeah, I've heard of that flick. And I know exactly where I can get a copy. In other words, don't be surprised if you see a Keep entry on here in the not-so distant future.

  3. Excellent review! Couldn't agree more about the badassedness of the film. Plus, you've got Willie Nelson playing Caan's jailbird mentor. Nice! Also, look for a small role by Dennis Farina as one of Robert Prosky's flunkies with a gun who ends up getting blown away by Caan at the end of the film. How cool is that?

  4. Thanks, J.D.

    I don't know what would freak me out more: The sight Dennis Farina running towards me with a gun, or the sight of Dennis Farina running towards me with jet black hair.

  5. It's all about the 'stache when it comes to Farina.